Until this month I’d never watched an original black-and-white episode of “Dragnet,” the police drama series that ran from 1951-1959 and starred Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday. Webb also produced and directed the series, having adapted it for television from a radio series he’d originated after being inspired by his role as a crime lab technician in the 1949 movie, HE WALKED BY NIGHT, covered here on March 13, 2012. I’ve seen 12 episodes of “Dragnet” so far, thanks to a box set I picked up at a used video store last year.
So far, I have yet to hear Webb’s trademark phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am,” which he may never have actually said, but his clipped dialogue is full of similar lines as in the encounter with the girlfriend of a thief he’d just shot in self-defense. As she protests the shooting, he declares, “We didn’t call it, lady.” And when a man about to be indicted for a series of murders explains how easy it was to kill all those people, Webb tells him, “You got it wrong, Henry. Wait till they read you the bill,” followed by the announcement of his fate after trial—death in the gas chamber at San Quentin. The California criminal justice system didn’t mess around back then. Henry is played by none other than Lee Marvin!
It’s quite an intensely focused series. We follow Webb and his partner (he’s got two different ones in the episodes I’ve seen) as they doggedly pursue an investigation and grill suspects until they break down. Sometimes there’s action—as in fistfights and shootouts—but mostly it’s a steady parade of questioning of witnesses and the interrogation of the one who turns out to be the actual culprit. In one episode, “The Big Phone Call” (1952), the only characters are Friday, his partner Ed Jacobs (Barney Phillips) and a jeweler who’s the suspect in a jewel robbery, Ernest Garvey (Vic Perrin). They sit in the office the whole time and play back tape recordings secretly made in Garvey’s office to prove to him that they know he’d hired a kid to do the actual robbery of a jeweler friend of Garvey’s who was carrying $20,000 worth of jewels. Friday and Jacobs play back the recordings and show Garvey photostats of bank statements, receipts, loan records, etc. to show him that they’ve done all the legwork to back up their case as Garvey keeps threatening to sue them for false arrest. Eventually he breaks down and confesses. It’s a fascinating process.
My favorite episode so far, though, is one that starts out as an investigation of a ring of high school kids selling obscene literature and photos and goes back in time to the glory days of silent movies. It’s called “The Big Producer” (1954) and it includes a whole sequence shot at an abandoned movie studio that is laden with poetry and comes completely out of left field, unlike anything else I’ve seen in this series. First, however, we meet the kids who’ve been caught with the literature and the girlfriend who’s gone to wild parties with them, thrown by the old man behind the ring. Two of the “kids” are none other than Martin Milner (future star of Webb’s 1968 police series, “Adam-12”) and Carolyn Jones (future Morticia on TV’s “The Addams Family”), both in their 20s at the time.
Eventually the trail leads to the man behind the ring, Charles Hopkins (Ralph Moody), an old man in dark glasses and a fake-looking mustache who, like all suspects on “Dragnet,” initially denies everything.
Webb and his partner Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) find a key in Hopkins’ possession and hope it will help them locate the stash of “smut.” It turns out to be the key to the gate at Westside Studios (“off Jefferson Boulevard”) and Hopkins takes them there. Friday describes the place in these lines of narration:
“One look at the old Westside Studios and you knew right away it had seen better days. The place had been fairly prominent back in the early days of silent pictures, but all that was left now was three square miles of broken-down scenery….
“Hopkins unlocked the gate and we drove onto the lot. The place was deserted. The sun had almost gone down. There was a cold wind from the north.”
Hopkins turns out to have been a silent film producer and was once co-owner of the lot. Friday and Smith demand the location of the stash, but Hopkins insists on showing them around the studio, which certainly seems to be an abandoned backlot. They move past sets, props, and massive backdrops, revealed in a series of shots that includes one evocative tracking shot enhanced by an upwards crane shot.
After some more walking around…
…Hopkins finally stops at a western street where he proceeds to relive the making of his big hit from 30 years earlier, “Thunder on the Trail,” directed by “Conway Blackburne” and starring “Big Clyde Harrison.”
As Webb listens with thinly-veiled impatience, Hopkins recounts every piece of action from the big scene where Clyde singlehandedly takes on the “Kelsey Gang” in a barroom brawl and subsequent shootout on the street. As he tells the story, we hear the sounds of crowds responding, men fighting, glass breaking, gunshots and the off-camera musicians playing to put the actors in the mood. Hopkins calls out “Camera!” and “Action!” before telling us in minute detail what the performers did.
As he tells it, we see shots of various buildings on the abandoned, tumbleweed-strewn, dusty old street, where the action took place, untouched by modern camera and sound crews.
Detective Smith is actually enthralled, but an unmoved Sgt. Friday just wants to get to Hopkins’ confession.
Hopkins yells “Cut! Print it!” and then takes off his glasses.
He adds one final comment, “That’s just the way it was. Yessir. I stood here and saw it. They don’t make pictures like that anymore.” He then launches into a shamed confession. And the three men walk off into the sunset in one last crane shot and fadeout.
There’s a Norma Desmond/SUNSET BOULEVARD vibe to this, given the nostalgia for the silent era and the character of a prominent silent film personality out of their time, unable to adapt, recalling Desmond’s famous lines: “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!” “I AM big! It’s the PICTURES that got small!” This connection makes perfect sense when we remember that Jack Webb had a significant supporting role in SUNSET BOULEVARD, as Artie Green, a writer friend of the main character, Joe Gillis (William Holden).
Webb in SUNSET BOULEVARD:
One big difference , of course, is that while Norma Desmond may have been genuinely unable to adapt, Hopkins, as a producer of westerns, would have had no trouble forging a career in the sound era, given the increasing popularity of westerns over the years. Many who made silent westerns continued to make them in the sound era and then some more in the early days of television. And many of them offered the exact same action Hopkins described in that scene from “Thunder on the Trail,” so his notion that “They don’t make them like that anymore” is highly suspect. In fact, the vogue for westerns didn’t end until, roughly, the mid-1970s. Still, it’s a moment of genuine pathos in a series that usually didn’t have the time or the inclination for such sentiments.
Also, I became curious about where this episode was shot. I couldn’t imagine that there could be an abandoned western street in Hollywood at that time. So many TV westerns were being shot that it was unlikely any western set wouldn’t have been regularly in use, especially one as extensive as this one. I did a little research and learned that “Dragnet” was partly shot at the Republic Pictures studio, which had an extensive western backlot. I found some pictures of Republic’s western street on-line and could see enough similarities between it and the street pictured in the screen grabs above to indicate that this is where they probably shot that episode, dressing it up to look “abandoned.” Either way, it’s a very clever and creative use of the backlot.
[ADDENDUM: In a comment below, a reader informs me that this sequence was shot at the RKO Encino Ranch just before the site’s demolition. Here’s the Wikipedia page with the info: Movie Ranch – Wikipedia]
Webb went on to make “Dragnet 1967” and “Dragnet 1968” in which Joe Friday takes on the drug culture and the counterculture, suggesting that the problems that gave rise to them could be solved simply by some stern talk from an adult authority figure. Well, those of us who survived that era saw how well that worked out. Still, the “Dragnet” revival remains a fascinating example of late ’60s culture clash.
There was nobody quite like Webb and I’m glad I finally got to see the series in which he made his initial mark as a broadcasting innovator.